Jean Claude Meus - innocent man serving 15 years? - Seán Kinane

12/22/05 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday

Last night in Tampa a Community Briefing and Prayer Vigil was held at the Beulah Baptist Church. It was sponsored by the NAACP and local pastors in order to address racial disparity in criminal sentences. WMNF's Seán Kinane reports.

"Someone was charged with a nonexistent crime and has been convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison."

That was John Trevena, attorney for Jean Claude Meus. Meus is a black man who was charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter in 2001 for the death of Nona Moore and one of her daughters when his truck overturned on their van.

The investigative reporting of a local television station has exposed problems with Meus' trial, including jurors who did not believe the State proved the charges and an eyewitness who contradicts a key point of the State's case.

"Now we have a witness who has stated information that is contradictory, not just lack of evidence, now that we were dealing with at the original trial level. We are talking about contradictory evidence to the state's case. The state relied solely upon the theory of sleep deprivation at the original trial. Now we have a witness who says he was there. He had first hand eyewitness knowledge that he (Meus) was not sleep deprived."

Trevena has filed a motion for post-conviction relief to vacate Meus' conviction and sentence based on the new information. But the legal process is slow so the NAACP, and local pastors have joined with Trevena to draft a letter to Governor Jeb Bush to ask for clemency for Meus. They hope that Governor Bush, who has never granted a pardon, will agree with them that an innocent man is in prison but should have never been charged with a crime for a traffic accident.

"It depends on what type of clemency he (Gov. Jeb Bush) grants. There's an actual pardon, which says that he's (Meus) completely pardoned for the offence. Or he could commute his sentence and say I'm going to release him, but I'm not going to pardon him for the offence. So it would depend on what action he took. We don't believe there's any justification for the criminal charge to begin with. My colleagues say 'Well, it looks like you have a case where he didn't commit the crime.' But I don't think there ever was a crime that was committed. I don't think there was evidence to bring a vehicular homicide charge."

Dana Christensen is the sister and aunt of the victims of the accident. Despite her loss, she is working diligently for Meus' freedom.

"I believe that the situation with Mr. Meus with the car accident was just that -- an accident. And no one should be in prison for an accident. I know many facts about the case, I have read up on it. I know his fiancee and I have met Jean Claude. I am convinced he is an innocent man behind bars and he deserves to be out."

Another case where a black driver is serving an incredibly long sentence for the death of white victims is the case of William Thornton IV, who was 17 at the time and was given a 30-year prison sentence. His mother, Lola M Thornton told WMNF that the judge decided on a long prison sentence despite the fact that representatives from some agencies recommended that Thornton be given a much-reduced sentence.

"They recommended, the DOC a year house arrest and probation. The division of forestry was 18 months in their program. And juvenile, Cypress Creek for a year or so. And he (judge) asked for these recommendations, and didn't use any of them. He totally overlooked everybody. Even though the guy from the division of forestry got up and told him that was an option. But he totally overlooked him."

Jennifer Porter is a white woman who was driving a car that struck and killed two black children last year. She was sentenced to no jail time. Her case was not specifically mentioned at last night's event, but Pat Spencer of the NAACP says that the reason this community briefing and prayer vigil was held is because the cases of Meus and Thornton seem unfair compared with other sentences.

"Recent events point to a growing climate of racial intolerance and indifference toward African-Americans in the Tampa Bay area and throughout the state of Florida. We see evidence of a flash back to the early days of the civil rights movement, in harsh sentencing by our intolerant attitudes and excessive disciplinary actions rendered against minority youth in our classrooms -- This event is being held to raise public awareness of racial injustice and disparity in sentencing in the Florida court system in general and particularly with respect to Mr. Meus."

Meus's Attorney Trevena agrees.

"I've said all along I think there's been a long-established pattern of disparate sentencing in the Tampa Bay area and in the State of Florida. Absolutely. I think that anyone who sits in court proceedings on a routine basis will see that sentences handed down to minorities represented by the public defenders office are much more harsh than those sentences handed down to non-minorities, whites, who have private attorneys. We see it every day."

The NAACP is establishing a Courtwatch program where volunteers can monitor the judiciary to insure that sentencing is fair. Trevena points out that the only way change will happen is for people to understand the system and how unfair it is.

"Not every case makes the news, obviously. It takes a dramatic situation such as Mr. Thornton and Mr. Meus before anyone even pays any attention. But it is that outrage over that disparity that we all are feeling here that we need to keep the momentum going if we are going to affect any real change.
"If there is no spotlight on the injustice there will be no change. We have to expose the injustice for us to affect any real change."

If you would like to volunteer for the Courtwatch program, contact the Hillsborough Branch NAACP at 813-814-1600

Tampa Bay area pastors who would like to sign on to the letter to Governor Bush should contact Pastor James Favorite at the email address -

For WMNF News, I'm Seán Kinane.

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